Tótem review – family faces mortality in a devastating, nuanced drama
Mexican director Lila Avilés' second feature finds generous shades of grey in its exploration of the ways we process death
Much of Tótem is shot in a delicate, naturalistic style, prioritising hand-held long takes, often holding characters up close for the duration of a shot. It’s a style that largely emerged in European arthouse cinema in the eternal search for realism, but which has gradually come to dominate large portions of arthouse and festival-focused films the world over. The style, I think, has a tendency to conflate realism with truthfulness, making the assumption that simply staging a scene with a naturalistic bent will import weight and meaning. In the worst hands, it builds towards voyeuristic melodrama, placing characters under a magnifying glass until they explode with the pressure (the Dardennes being particularly criminal in this regard).
Of course, what matters is not the aesthetic per se, but to what ends such techniques are used. Mexican director Lila Avilés' second feature – following 2018's The Chambermaid – may have European co-production funds on board, and may be distinctly reminiscent of this approach, risking framing a Mexican story through a style palatable to European eyes (already a saturated market on the European festival circuit). But thankfully, this is a firmly-told and confident work, the result of a director, cast and crew with a clear vision that speaks to their reality.
We are introduced to Sol (Naíma Sentíes), a pre-adolescent girl, as she’s dropped off at the family home. We soon glean that it is her father Tona’s (Mateo García Elizondo) birthday, though as we see him having to be helped to his feet by a nurse and requiring round-the-clock care, we realise he’s dying of cancer. The film then becomes about the preparation for this family gathering, which doubles as a celebration and a wake. Sol is just about at the age where she’s beginning to understand the gravity of mortality. The adults around her try to grin and bear it, but it’s impossible to ignore.
Where lesser directors would ramp up the melodrama of the situation, using the realist film language to build an ersatz verisimilitude, Avilés finds ways to avert her gaze just gently enough to provide a certain level of levity. Tona, for example, is only rarely seen, and even then he's often shrouded in darkness – at least until he emerges for the party. Yet the more mundane foibles of his sisters – one obsessing over cake decorations and the other introduced bringing a spiritual healer to the house who clearly exaggerates the problem for a bigger payout – are more central concerns, at least at first. The grandfather, an ageing therapist who speaks with an electrolarynx (a device for people who’ve had their larynx removed through surgery) becomes a figure of absurdity, clearly happy to let the women do the bulk of the work whilst giving himself an air of self-importance.
The purpose is not to turn these characters into the butt of jokes, but to depict how, even when faced with great sadness, we often waste our energies on small and pointless distractions. Avilés’ writing is sharp and nuanced, with each character in the extended family rendered in generous shades of grey. It results in a final scene that is unexpectedly devastating, held close on Sol’s young face, buried in thought and melancholy.
Tótem was screened as part of the Berlinale Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch